Vancouver-Quilchena MLA Andrew Wilkinson announces new MLA supporters in Victoria, Nov. 30, 2017. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

Vancouver-Quilchena MLA Andrew Wilkinson announces new MLA supporters in Victoria, Nov. 30, 2017. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

B.C. VIEWS: B.C. Liberal battle getting bitter

Front-runners Andrew Wilkinson, Todd Stone target Dianne Watts

B.C. Liberal leadership hopefuls Mike de Jong, Sam Sullivan and Michael Lee seemed to be enjoying the show at their recent debate in Kelowna, as apparent front-runners Andrew Wilkinson, Todd Stone and Dianne Watts went toe to toe for party member support.

As their arguments became more heated in front of a packed room, de Jong and Lee were doubled over in their chairs to muffle their laughter. Sullivan suggested the next debate should be a cage match.

A quick summary of the Floggin’ in the Okanagan: Wilkinson waved a glossy copy of his platform, insisting only his is costed to balance budgets. He had a former deputy finance minister look at Stone’s, pronouncing it a deficit-prone spending spree.

Stone fired back that his plan is balanced but bold, describing Wilkinson’s as old and tired, like its author.

Both of them turned on Watts, who remains embarrassingly unprepared for B.C. politics since resigning her Conservative MP seat. Plan? She doesn’t even have the proverbial cocktail napkin with scribbled notes on it.

As in the Prince George and Nanaimo debates, Watts was grilled on complex issues like forest policy, and she didn’t have a clue. Watts has money, name recognition and almost nothing else. If any party members still think she’s Christy Clark 2.0, they haven’t been paying attention.

Watts has a vision, but can’t articulate it. She promises to listen, then blames the B.C. Liberals for losing 11 seats because they didn’t listen. Her opponents remind her that she only joined the party in May.

I usually don’t give polls the attention that even dogs do, but this is not a general public decision. Interim B.C. Liberal leader Rich Coleman tells me party membership is about 40,000 people, as sign-ups continue until Dec. 31 in preparation for an online vote to be revealed Feb. 4.

Those members have all been phoned and door-knocked by the leadership teams, and the candidates must have a good idea where they stand.

If there’s a front-runner now, it’s Wilkinson, formerly a cabinet minister, party president, city lawyer and country doctor. He reminds everyone that his MLA support is more than all other candidates combined.

Cabinet veterans Mary Polak (Langley), John Rustad (Nechako Lakes), Michelle Stilwell (Parksville-Qualicum), Norm Letnick (Kelowna-Lake Country) and Mike Morris (Prince George-Mackenzie) are in Wilkinson’s camp, along with experienced backbenchers Donna Barnett (Cariboo-Chilcotin) and Laurie Throness (Chilliwack-Hope). Newcomers Ellis Ross (Skeena), Tracy Redies (Surrey-White Rock), Doug Clovechok (Columbia River-Revelstoke), Tom Shypitka (Kootenay East) and Joan Isaacs (Coquitlam-Burke Mountain) have come on board, showing Wilkinson has party support all over the province.

Stone is backed by MLAs Peter Milobar (Kamloops-North Thompson), Greg Kyllo (Shuswap), Jane Thornthwaite (North Vancouver-Seymour) Coralee Oakes (Cariboo North), Ian Paton (Delta South) and Steve Thomson (Kelowna-Mission).

Stone, a smooth-talking former technology entrepreneur from Kamloops-South Thompson, likes to describe himself as young and “relatable,” playing to the perception of Wilkinson as an elitist from wealthy Vancouver-Quilchena.

De Jong trailed Clark and Kevin Falcon in the 2012 leadership campaign, and judging by the latest debate, he seems resigned to third or fourth again. He’s endorsed by Surrey South MLA and former cabinet minister Stephanie Cadieux, fellow Abbotsford MLA Simon Gibson, Chilliwack’s John Martin, Richmond’s Teresa Wat and Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier, who dropped out of the leadership contest early on.

De Jong’s record as finance minister is both his greatest strength and weakness, as he tries to emphasize five balanced budgets and move past the penny-pinching reputation that members blame for the election loss.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca

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